Book Reviews: Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley and Past Reason Hated by Peter Robinson

Charcoal Joe
An Easy Rawlins Mystery #14
Walter Mosley
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-3855-3920-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Easy Rawlins has started a new detective agency with two trusted partners and has a diamond ring in his pocket for his longtime girlfriend Bonnie Shay. Finally, Easy’s life seems to be heading towards something that looks like normalcy, but, inevitably, a case gets in the way. Easy’s friend Mouse calls in a favor—he wants Easy to meet with Rufus Tyler, an aging convict whom everyone calls Charcoal Joe. Joe’s friend’s son, Seymour, has been charged with the murder of two white men. Joe is convinced the young man is innocent and wants Easy to prove it no matter what the cost. But seeing as how Seymour was found standing over the dead bodies, and considering the racially charged nature of the crime, that will surely prove to be a tall order.

One of his two partners, Tinsford “Whisper” Natly, is described as “a Negro from St. Louis who could find anyone, anywhere, given the time and resources.  Easy describes himself as a “poor black man from the deep South . . . lucky not to be dead and buried, much less a living, breathing independent businessman.”  Their receptionist, Niska Redman:  “Butter-skinned, biracial, and quite beautiful . . .  twenty-four and filled with dreams of a world in which all humans were happy and well fed.”  Easy says of himself “I had two great kids, a perfect island woman that I would soon propose to, a profession I was good at, friends that I liked, and access to powers that most people in Los Angeles (white and black) didn’t even know existed.”

Easy’s friend Mouse is a welcome presence in these pages.  Forty-seven, he still has never worked “an honest job” and is accused by Etta as having been an outlaw since he was five, which he cannot deny.  When Mouse asks Easy to help him out with Charcoal Joe, he cannot refuse. Fearless Jones (who Easy calls “the black Prince Charming”) also plays a big role in the tale.

Another wonderful entry in this series, and another one which is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2017.

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Past Reason Hated
An Inspector Banks Novel #5
Peter Robinson
William Morrow, March 2016
ISBN: 978-0-0624-3117-29-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Chief Inspector Alan Banks knows that secrets can prove fatal, and secrets were the driving force behind Caroline Hartley’s life . . . and death.  She was brutally stabbed in her own home three days prior to Christmas. Leaving her past behind for a forbidden love affair, she mystified more than a few.  And now she is dead.  In this season of giving and forgiving, Banks is eager to absolve the innocent of their sins.  But that must wait until the dark circle of his investigation finally closes . . . and when a killer makes the next move.

Since she was the only member of the CID on duty that night, newly promoted Detective Constable Susan Gay, on only her second day on the job at the CID at Eastvale Regional Headquarters, finds the challenge quite exciting. A call had come in from a neighbor of the dead woman, who had gone rushing into the street screaming.  As the tale proceeds, there are references to the current public image of the force, tarnished by race riots, sex scandals and accusations of high-level corruption.  As the investigation unfolds, there are quite a number of suspects among the various friends, family and colleagues of the dead woman, which after a while made it a little difficult to differentiate among them.  Banks’ erudition in matters of classical music comes in very handy, as a piece of music, playing on an old-fashioned phonograph at the murder scene, becomes a disturbing clue that he feels is very significant as his investigation continues.  And then they realize that the dead woman was in a lesbian relationship.

Banks, now 39 years old, had only been promoted to Detective Superintendent only a few weeks ago, is still “learning the ropes,” and is always a fascinating protagonist who has come to trust his instincts, as has the reader.

Susan has also been tasked with looking into a series of vandalisms that have taken place in the area, and the author switches p.o.v. from Banks to that of Susan from time to time, making for some very interesting reading.  But that’s something we have come to expect from Mr. Robinson; this book is as beautifully written as his numerous prior novels.  This is the fifth of what is now 22 entries in the series.  Although I must admit that I found it a slow read in the early going as the case plods along, the pace soon picks up.  I must add that the many wonderfully descriptive sections of the wintry weather that prevails and its effects on driving and walking had me going to my closet for a warm sweater!

The book concludes with an excerpt from the next book in the series to follow this one, When the Music’s Over, and I have no doubt that that entry, as is this one, will be highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2017.

Book Review: The Ville Rat by Martin Limon

the-ville-ratThe Ville Rat
A Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Mystery #10
Martin Limon
Soho Crime, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61695-391-1
Trade Paperback

When the body of a beautiful Korean woman washes up on the shore of a frozen river, it sets off an investigation that carries Ernie Vascom and George Sueno, two irreverent 8th Army CID agents, into areas far afield from just a murder inquiry.  The event takes place during 1974 in South Korea, not far from the DMZ.  Not only do they have to fight higher-ups in the chain of command, but must determine the motive for the killing.

Despite the fact that Pres. Harry S Truman “desegregated” the armed forces years before, the novel graphically portrays how black and white soldiers maintained their separate ways when off duty, convening in all Black or all-White bars for recreation. And in the midst of this enters the Ville Rat, the so-called nickname of a former GI who caters to the Black bars by supplying Colt 45 favored by the Blacks because of its higher alcohol content.  The Ville Rat holds a key clue to the investigation and Ernie and George desperately try to find the illusive person to solve the case.

As a police procedural, the novel is juxtaposed between a detailed investigation and the seamier side of Army politics and Korean night life.  The Ville Rat is the 10th novel in the series, each reflecting the author’s deep knowledge of the Korean people and culture, much less of the army and its officers.  This newest entry is no exception, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Reviews: Hanging By A Hair by Nancy J. Cohen and A Murder in Passing by Mark deCastrique

Hanging By A HairHanging by a Hair
A Bad Hair Day Mystery
Nancy J. Cohen
Five Star, April 2014
ISBN 978-1-4328-2814-1
Hardcover

Marla Vail, just can’t find enough to do in her spare time, even though she owns a hair salon, is the new bride of a homicide detective, and stepmother to a teenage girl and two dogs. Following the murder of the man next door, despite her husband’s repeated warnings to stay clear of his homicide case, Marla proceeds to investigate the murder.

Customs of the Jewish faith are sprinkled throughout the story as the family approaches the Passover holiday, planning meals and rituals.

It seems that Mr. Krabber, (the murder victim’s name is most fitting as he was a curmudgeon, a womanizer and an all-around stinker) was killed in a most gruesome manner. The suspects are all connected, one way or another, to Marla’s community and Home Owner’s Association. Secrets from Mr. Krabber’s past are discovered, creating more intrigue and unanswered questions.

A tribe of Florida Native Americans play a role in the mystery and quirky characters abound, including Marla’s mother, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend. The newlyweds offer a touch of romance to the story from time to time, that is, when hubby Dalton can catch Marla between her jaunts thither and yon questioning suspects.

As for a mystery plot, it was pretty good. I didn’t figure out who-dun-it until Marla was unexpectedly waylaid and hauled off by the killer, potentially to become another victim in a rather formulaic scene, (yawn). I’d like to see a different ending in a cozy mystery, but this seems to be pretty much the norm these days.

Overall, it was a pretty good little cozy mystery.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, March 2014.

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A Murder in PassingA Murder in Passing
A Sam Blackman Mystery #4
Mark de Castrique
Poisoned Pen Press, July 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0149-3
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

The Blackman-Robertson mysteries are rooted in South Carolina history. In previous novels, such landmarks as Carl Sandburg’s farm played a role. Other links included Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this book, it is a photo taken 80 years before by a famous woman photographer, Doris Ulmann, the subjects of which were three blacks, mother, daughter and five-year-old Marsha Montgomery, and some boys. Marsha retains Sam Blackman and Nakayla Robertson to find the photo which she claims was stolen from her mother’s home, along with a rifle, in 1932. That is the first plot twist of many that lie ahead, before the truth is revealed.

The mystery involves the identity of a skeleton which Sam inadvertently uncovers when he trips, crashing into a rotted log while hunting for mushrooms. Racial attitudes in the South play a prominent role in the novel. Sam is white, Nakayla is black. Not only are they partners in the detective agency bearing their names, but lovers as well. Marsha’s 85-year-old mother is black, but had a white lover, Jimmy Lang, who fathered Marsha. He also was in the supposedly valuable photo which disappeared in 1932. As did he, after his proposal of marriage was rejected for sound reasons based on local prejudices.

This is a well-told tale that moves along swiftly, keeping the reader intrigued as it introduces nuances and new facts wending its way toward a conclusion. Written with economy and a keen eye on the socio-economic society of the post-Civil War South, the author has an excellent grasp of his subject, and the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2014.

Book Reviews: Dying for Justice by L.J. Sellers, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, The Informant by Thomas Perry, The Ridge by Michael Koryta, and One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Dying for JusticeDying for Justice
L.J. Sellers
Spellbinder Books, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9832138-3-3
Trade Paperback

Detective Wade Jackson, with the violent crimes unit of the Eugene, Oregon Police Department, an investigator with the best track record of closing cases, has never worked a cold case before.  In the fifth and newest entry in this terrific series, he is faced with two of them, one in particular of a very personal nature:  the murder of his parents, ten years earlier.  Convinced that the man who has been imprisoned for the crime, now terminally ill with cancer, is innocent, he is determined to find justice for them, and peace for himself.

The second case has to do with Gina Stahl, now 46 years old, who has been in a coma for two years, believed to be the result of a suicide attempt.  When she awakens for the first time, she quite lucidly tells the authorities that she had been attacked by a man wearing a ski mask but who she believes was her ex-husband.  That investigation is complicated by the fact that her ex is a police officer.

Jackson ultimately works both cases, assisted by 32-year-old detective-in-training Lara Evans, the chapters for the most part alternating p.o.v. between the two.   The tale, as much as anything, is one of dysfunctional families in general, and siblings in particular.  The author’s expertise in creating deeply human characters is again much in evidence, together with a plot that keeps picking up speed as it hurtles to an ending that, quite literally, sent chills up and down my back and arms, and just as that was settling down, the ending had me again in goosebumps.  Ms. Sellers’ books just keep getting better and better, and accordingly this is her best one yet.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2011.

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Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Tom Franklin
Harper Perennial, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-059467-1
Trade Paperback

Whether this novel is a mystery, or a story about two men, or a tale about the Deep South, it is a riveting look into the characters, their development and their environment.  Larry and Silas, one white and the other black, were boyhood friends for a short time in rural Mississippi more than a quarter of a century before (where children were taught to spell the name of the State and river: M, I crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I humpback, humpback, I,).  They are tied together by more than just an apparent crime that changes both their lives.

Larry is a shunned outcast in the town as the result of the disappearance, and presumed murder, of a girl with whom he supposedly had a date as a teenager.  Silas moved to Chicago with his mother, but returns to the small rural town, eventually serving as its only constable.  Now their lives intertwine again as Larry falls under suspicion when the daughter of the town’s leading citizen disappears. The situation makes Silas face the past, something he’d rather avoid.

As a mystery, the novel is intriguing.  As a description of life in a small Southern town, it is vivid.  As a tale of racial conflict, it is mesmerizing.   The complex analyses of the characters, their motivations and actions are profound, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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The InformantThe Informant
Thomas Perry
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-547-56933-8
Hardcover

As in his earlier novels [and I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful Jane Whitefield series], the devil is in the details, and this author excels in conveying the meticulously planned and executed steps taken by his protagonist, so that credibility is never an issue. In this standalone – actually, a follow-up to Mr. Perry’s very first novel, The Butcher’s Boy [for which he won an Edgar award] – that eponymous character returns, twenty years older.  Although he goes by any number of other names, that soubriquet is the name by which he is known, both to the authorities and to the mafia members who variously employed him, betrayed him, and then became his victims.  The Butcher’s Boy kills without compunction.  It is, after all, what he does best, taught since childhood, simply as a job, or a way to stay alive, or to seek revenge for the aforementioned betrayal.  Rarely is it personal.  Although somewhat more so of late.

Well-trained from the age of 10 by an actual butcher, whose “side job” is in “the killing trade,” beyond the necessary skills he is also taught “Everybody dies.  It’s just a question of timing, and whether the one who gets paid for it is you or a bunch of doctors.  It might as well be you.”

While working as a hit man, his philosophy was simple:  He had “resisted the camaraderie that some of the capos who had hired him
tried to foster.  He had kept his distance, done his job, collected his pay, and left town before buyer’s remorse set in.  He made it clear that he was a free agent and that he was nobody’s friend.”  He has been out of the US for over twenty years, now over 50 years old, and afraid he had gone soft.  But his skills are not diminished.  He leaves no witnesses.  The ones who aren’t dead never notice him entering or leaving a crime scene:  “He was a master at being the one the eye passed over in a crowd.”  And the authorities – –  with one notable exception – –  haven’t a clue.  That exception is Elizabeth Waring, of the Organized Crime & Racketeering Division of the Department of Justice.  She connects the dots and has no doubt that he has come out of retirement and is the one now murdering Mafiosi at an alarming rate, and sees in him, potentially, “the most promising informant in forty years.”  Of course, to fulfill that possibility she must get him to agree and, even more difficult, keep him alive, as “he wasn’t worth anything dead.”  They embark on an ambivalent, and somewhat fluid, relationship, equal parts grudging respect and fear of
the danger the other represents, somehow both earning sympathy.  The author’s trademark suspense as the end of the novel draws near had this reader literally holding her breath.  I loved this book, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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The RidgeThe Ridge
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-05366-2
Hardcover

Mixing mystery with the supernatural, Michael Koryta has developed works that are eerie and fascinating, and The Ridge is no less than captivating.  The plot is somewhat complicated, and it takes a while to follow the thread.  And, of course, it requires suspension of disbelief.  But it does hold the reader from start to finish.

The story involves a particular area in Kentucky where over a century or more, a series of accidents and deaths occur.  In the midst of a forest, a drunkard has built a lighthouse.  For what purpose?  Then the man who built it is found dead by his own hand, oddly enough leaving a note asking chief deputy Kevin Kimble to investigate it. Meanwhile, a big-cat sanctuary has opened across the road, and the lions and tigers are uneasy in their new surroundings.  What does it mean?  Are there sinister forces at work?

Written with a keen eye, the novel moves rapidly from scene to scene. The characters are well-drawn and the surroundings described vividly, and the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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One Was a SoldierOne Was a Soldier
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-33489-5
Hardcover

In the tiny Adirondack town of Millers Kill, in upstate New York, a group of seven recently returning veterans are attending therapy sessions, PTSD the common factor among them, affecting each differently.  There is also a 25-year-old woman, ex-Army.  Each is finding the transition back to civilian life a difficult one.  They are a rather disparate group, variously described as “the doctor, the cop, the Marine and the priest” or, less kindly, “a cripple, a drunk, a washed-up cop . . . , ”  any or all of whom might be at risk for suicide.

Against all odds, Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are, finally, going to get married, and fans of this wonderful series can breathe a sigh of relief.  Clare, an Army Major and an Episcopal priest originally from southern Virginia, has just returned after serving eighteen months in a combat zone.  Russ, the police chief from Millers Kills, in upstate New York, is now widowed [after 25 years of marriage], and they no longer have to hide their love.  But believing that he has never gotten over his wife’s death and that he is starting to have second thoughts, she starts having second thoughts of her own. For his part, Russ thinks “What did she want out of marriage? Specifically, marriage to a guy fourteen years older, who thought God was a myth and whose job could get him killed.”

The chapters of this newest book from Julia Spencer-Fleming, her seventh and her strongest yet [high praise indeed], alternate between these two major plot points, until they merge when one member of the therapy group is found dead and Russ is the lead investigator.  Clare is convinced, all evidence to the contrary, that it was murder.  In denial, perhaps, because that might threaten her own sense of safety, fighting, as she is, her own demons.  Russ, too, is ex-Army, had served in Vietnam, and is mindful of the problems faced by returning vets.

There are several plot twists, including wholly unexpected ones near the end, and the precision of the way they are woven into the tale completely satisfying.  In addition, the book makes the reader aware that aside from the obvious politics involved, one tends to forget the toll on lives lost and ruined by wars now lasting over a decade.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

Book Review: Open Season by Maryann Miller

Open Season
Maryann Miller
Five Star, December 2010
ISBN 9781594149153o
Hardcover

One white cop struggling to get back on the job after a drug operation gone bad. One black cop, new to homicide, struggling with a racist family and her own prejudice. A city in panic and the police force’s hierarchy bearing down on an unlikely pair of detectives as a killer seeks revenge for injustices. There’s high tension and mystery in this police procedural from Maryann Miller.

Dallas Detective Sarah Kingsley is up against a review board and protesters after she shoots and kills a black child during a case in which her partner also ends up dead. Coming back to the job after some leave time, she’s paired with Angel Johnson, a new detective to the department. Neither is happy with the situation. First up for the pair is the murder of a mall employee. However, one murder turns into two as a security guard at another mall is found dead, followed days later by a window display worker. Both detectives have to deal with almost nonexistent clues, pressure from above to catch the killer, changes in their personal lives, and constant racial issues driving a wedge between them.

This is a good introductory novel for this series. It touches on a topic that never seems to disappear. Both characters are given a fair shake for background and personal information and the reader is drawn to find out if they can work with each other. Add in a little romance, a gung-ho reporter, and some interesting coworkers, this should be an interesting series to follow. Look forward to more from this pair of Dallas cops because there are many areas in their relationship and lives to explore.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, December 2011.